Hip-Hop tends to sit at the forefront of any discussion surrounding sampling. With good reason, some of the most high profile legal battles on the matter have been waged over some snippet woven into someone’s beats, such as with De La’s 3 Feet High and Rising or the Beastie’s Paul’s Boutique.
From the 1990s on, sampling has been a contentious legal issue for those looking to dialogue with previous generations of artists in order to craft something wholly new, and those who simply see music as commodity and sampling as theft.
Sampling as a technique in musical composition extends far beyond any single genre. Folk and blues artists from the very beginning were sampling from each other; you would commonly hear riffs and lyrics reappearing across the work of different artists. “Traditional” songs, or songs no one could remember the origins of, served as the basis for many compositions by artists such as Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie. And in modern tunes, nearly every popular genre now employs sampling in some form or another.
Tonight, the PBS Independent Lens series takes an in-depth look at the history of this debate with Copyright Criminals. The documentary takes a look at the creative merits of sampling contrasted with the commercial and legal issues that fuel this heated debate. Does the recontextualization of a musical element result in a new artwork?
As technology has evolved to create new ways for us to both create and experience music, these tools have facilitated an evolution of culture and art. A kid today has easier access to the whole of recorded history, no matter what their physical location. What impact does this access have on creativity when the law is dictating what is art and what is a crime? You can quote a passage of text from a published book with attribution, but similarly quoting a guitar riff in a new beat is somehow theft. So what is fair use?
Copyright Criminals takes a look at these questions and more, featuring interviews with artists like Public Enemy and De La Soul, and legal scholar (and one of my personal heroes) Lawrence Lessig.
Set your DVRs or, um, sit down and watch it in real time.